Folks give their worth on $12 million surplus At budget hearing, Ecker gets an earful on how to spend the money

March 04, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

At a budget hearing last night, more than 300 Howard County residents urged County Executive Charles I. Ecker to spend money on schools, fire protection and a host of other projects.

Ecker began the meeting trying to convince the standing-room-only crowd that county resources are limited, despite a $12 million surplus.

The school board and department heads have asked for $390 million for programs -- $11 million more than projected revenues for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Ecker will release his budget proposal, which needs County Council approval, in April.

"We simply cannot afford all the requests we've received," Ecker said.

But over the next 2 1/2 hours, dozens of citizens requested money for projects and programs large and small. They asked for school expansions, equestrian centers, library renovations and athletic fields.

Some wanted more sidewalks in their communities; and residents of an Ellicott City community debated whether a road project will ease traffic or make it worse.

The school board, which has asked for a nearly 10 percent increase in funding for the coming year, took center stage early in the hearing.

Board Chairman Stephen C. Bounds called "maintenance of effort" -- the state law requiring per-pupil spending to remain level -- "manacles of education" because Ecker has been reluctant to spend any more than the state-required minimum during his administration.

"Remove the manacles from the Board of Education and fully fund the FY99 budget," Bounds told Ecker.

The school board also has requested $31.4 million in county money for capital projects. That is more than the $25 million Ecker hopes to spend in new borrowing for all new capital projects throughout county government.

But spending for schools had no shortage of advocates last night.

Elizabeth Haynes of the Worthington Elementary School PTA urged Ecker to back renovations to Ellicott Mills Middle School, an older school with poor ventilation, little handicapped access and a history of trouble getting renovation funding from the county.

"In light of the county's anticipated increased revenues, a failure to improve Ellicott Mills would be unconscionable," Haynes said.

John Snyder of Columbia backed renovations to Phelps Luck Elementary. "Storage space has been retrofitted for class work, and desks have been jimmied in between copiers in back office passageways," he said.

And Kathleen Sinkinson, head of the school board's citizens' advisory committee, warned that county schools could deteriorate without an increase in funding.

"The time to return to investment in education is now, while our schools are still the best in the state," she said.

Renovations to the central library in Columbia, which were debated but rejected for last year's budget, got some attention last night.

Janet Blumenthal, chairwoman of the Wilde Lake Village Board, said technology has left the library, which was built in 1981, behind.

"It needs repairs," she said. "Heavy use by an enthusiastic populace has taken a toll. It also needs updating -- new wiring, new shelving, new information desks. All of these renovations are needed now."

A project proposed for the Worthington section of Ellicott City got lengthy debate as neighbors battled over proposed road connections, safety and traffic.

One neighbor, David McCann, said, "It's time to get on with it and put the roads through."

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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